20TH CENTURY WOMEN

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20TH CENTURY WOMEN  * * *

Starring Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann and Billy Crudup. Written and directed by Mike Mills.

Writer-director Mike Mills’ 2010 hit Beginners squandered such promise it made me want to smack him upside the head with a rolled-up newspaper. Working from the story of Mills’ father coming out of the closet as a seventy-five-year-old widower, Christopher Plummer won a long overdue Oscar for the role. Unfortunately his was just a supporting part and for most of the movie Plummer was dead, as a charmless Ewan McGregor played a grieving stand-in for Mills carrying on like the most annoying hipster art-student this side of Allston while was trying to pick up Melanie Laurent. I spent all of the Plummer-less scenes wishing these two would get hit by a bus.

20th Century Women is Mills’ movie about his mother, and it’s a much stronger piece of work, in part because he’s matured enough as a filmmaker not to make himself the focus of the story. Lucas Jade Zumann stars as Jamie –the stand-in for teenage Mike Mills– but it’s mostly a reactive role. His Mom, Dorthea, is played by Annette Bening in another one of those cozy, casually incandescent Annette Bening performances that feels less like *acting* and more like just sort of a higher plane of being. Jamie describes his mom as being “from the Depression” and as such the movie is really all about a lady born in 1924 finding herself a single mom in 1979, trying to square everything she’s learned so far with a future that even President Jimmy Carter seems to be awfully uncertain about.

Mills sticks with some of the odd digressions into stock footage, weird voice-overs and random memory burps that made Beginners such a chore, but they’re less annoying here. This is probably due to 20th Century Women’s crackerjack ensemble.  Dorthea owns a gargantuan fixer-upper of a falling-apart house and rents out rooms to tenants like Greta Gerwig’s punk-rock cancer survivor and Billy Crudup’s hippy-dippy, womanizing mechanic.

It’s all kind of like a commune even before Dorthea ratifies the arrangement by asking everyone around to help raise her teenage son and teach the kid a thing or two about other perspectives and life experiences.  Alas, her lineup includes the hotsy-totsy girl next door (Elle Fanning) who sneaks into Jamie’s room late at night and cuddles with him to cry about her terrible sexual experiences with her lousy boyfriends while Jamie lies there frozen and damn near dies from erections and yearning.

There’s not a lot of plot here, just some lovely, specific moments of behavior that at their best exude the funky, humanist glow of a Jonathan Demme movie. (Talking Heads’ album More Songs About Buildings And Food figures prominently on the soundtrack, so this is obviously not an accident.) With her omnipresent cigarettes and Birkenstocks, Bening plays a character who between the Depression and her divorce has grown accustomed to the world turning upside down, and thus now expects it. She tends to investigate everything with curiosity and temporarily suspended judgement.

My favorite scene is when she and Crudup get into Gerwig’s record collection and “try to understand” punk, but just end up dancing all over the place.  (With this film and Jackie in theatres at the same time one of my pet theories is finally being demonstrated to the public – clean-shaven Billy Crudup comes off like a creep, but give him a big floppy ’70s moustache and the guy’s a movie star.)

There’s much discussion of menstruation, clitoral stimulation and you can probably imagine that Our Bodies, Our Selves isn’t a big hit with Jamie’s skater boy buddies. 20th Century Women is a meandering little picture that’s nonetheless somehow stuck with me more than other, bombastic Oscar bait. Its generosity, rambling and an extremely moving epilogue mark this film’s appreciation for the people who don’t stay in your life for very long, but make considerable impressions before they go off to star in their own movies.

 

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